Modern warfare an exercise in savagery

In Other Words

By Donald Kaul

They were droning on about drones the other day in Washington.

The Senate Intelligence (ha-ha) Committee was grilling CIA chief-designate John Brennan on the use of unmanned aircraft during his tenure as President Barack Obama's adviser on terrorism.

Drones are being used a lot, according to Brennan, who was in charge of the drone program. But only for a good cause.

His answers satisfied some, not others. Mainly, the critics wanted to make sure we were killing people humanely, with full attention to their human rights. We don't want to be war criminals.

That's so mid-20th Century. There was a time when people could actually be shocked by the slaughter of civilians during a war.

The most famous example that comes to mind is the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica was a market town of no particular military importance but it favored the Republican cause during the war. So the infamous Condor Legion, under Hitler's command, swooped in on a spring day in 1937 and bombed it flat.

The international reaction was immediate and immense. Newspapers all over the world condemned the attack as barbaric and beyond the rules of warfare.

Hundreds of people died in the raid, which Pablo Picasso immortalized in one of the greatest anti-war paintings ever made.

That reaction seems almost quaint in its innocence, given the subsequent events of World War II. By 1945, Hitler had killed thousands more in his rocket attacks on London, destroyed Warsaw, and sent millions to the gas chambers. England had retaliated by leveling Dresden, where 25,000 died. The United States killed 100,000 Japanese in one night of Tokyo firebombing, and more than 200,000 by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost all of the dead were civilians.

The United States has bombed dozens of countries since then, all in the name of peace - most dramatically Vietnam and its neighbors, where we used more explosives than we did in all of World War II.

And we're worried whether our reliance on drones adheres to the finer points of bombing ettiquette? We're missing the larger moral point.

We kid ourselves that our warfare is moral and clean and good and that it's the other guys who commit the war crimes. Don't believe it.

Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery. If you're not willing to sign up for that, don't go to war.

Think of napalm, for example, a liquid flame designed to stick to the skin as it burns it away.

Or our flechette bombs, fitted with dozens of barbs to tear apart flesh.

Or our landmines scattered across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which are still blowing legs off farmers in southeast Asia.

I hearken back to my favorite military philosopher, William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for unapologetically burning down Atlanta during the Civil War.

"War is cruelty," he said. "There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."

Southerners hate Sherman still, but it can't be said that he didn't warn them. In a letter to a friend in the South, written on the eve of the war, he said:

"You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization…War is a terrible thing!"

Then he made it so.

The recent film that best captures that for me is "Zero Dark Thirty," about Osama bin Laden's killing.

It's been criticized for justifying torture as a means of obtaining information from prisoners, but I don't think it does.

Rather, it shows with unflinching honesty the tactics we are using. And a nasty piece of work they are.

It would be nice if we could have it both ways: be good guys and triumphant. Unfortunately, life ain't like that.

Believe Sherman - war is Hell.

Other Words columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When do student prayers cross the First Amendment line?

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes

Students are free to pray in public schools - except when they aren't.

If this sounds confusing, pity school administrators charged with figuring out if and when to draw the line on student prayers.

Current controversies in two regions of the county illustrate how complicated this line-drawing has become:

School officials in Birdville School District, near Fort Worth, Texas, allow students to offer prayers before football games, claiming that since the students freely choose to do so, the prayers are not endorsed by the school.

Meanwhile, school officials in Taconic Hills Central District in Craryville, New York, recently barred a student from closing her middle school graduation speech with a prayer, claiming that prayers at graduation - even when given by a student - constitute school-sponsored religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Before sorting out who got it right or wrong, let's remind ourselves of what we know about the constitutionality of student prayers in public schools under current law.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, school officials may not sponsor or promote religious exercises in public schools. At the same time, however, no Supreme Court decision prohibits public school students from praying alone or in groups, as long as such prayers don't disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

So far, so good.

But what do school administrators do when a student speaker decides to offer a prayer before a captive audience at graduation or some other school-sponsored event?

Is a prayer given by a student school-sponsored religion prohibited by the Establishment clause - or is it religious expression protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses?

In the culture wars, one side argues that all prayers at public school events are school promotion of religion, even if delivered by a student. But the other side insists that student prayers are always free speech, whatever the setting or circumstances.

Although the Supreme Court has yet to draw a bright line on this issue, past decisions make clear that when school officials arrange for prayers at school events, those prayers are the unconstitutional government endorsement of religion - even when delivered by outside speakers or students.

Some lower courts, however, have allowed student prayers at school events under certain conditions: If a student speaker is chosen by genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria (i.e., without regard to the student's religious or non-religious views) and given primary control over the content of the speech, then the student is free to give a religious or anti-religious message.

Relying on these court rulings, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) issued guidelines in 2003 on "constitutionally protected prayer" stating that schools should allow student prayers under those circumstances. And a few states, including Texas, have passed laws urging schools to turn the podium over to students at school events without controlling the content of their speech.

That brings us back to Birdville, where school officials claim that student speakers at football games aren't selected to give prayers, but are free to give any message they choose. If they happen to give a prayer, then the district argues that Texas law and the USDOE guidelines support their right to do so.

What isn't known from news reports is exactly how the students are selected to speak at the games - and whether school officials actually allow student speakers to say whatever they like.

But if the Birdville School District really does give students a "free speech moment," then it is likely that the courts would uphold the practice should the policy be challenged.

But in Taconic Hills, school administrators retain control over the content of student speeches. Permitting students to pray, the district argues, would put the schools in the position of endorsing religion. Earlier this month, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Taconic Hill's right to bar student prayers.

It's possible, then, that both school districts got it right under current law.

Whether we'll see more students praying at school events is difficult to predict. After all, many school officials are understandably reluctant to adopt policies that create a free speech forum at graduations and assemblies.

Turning the microphone over to student speakers can be a risky business for school officials, especially when religious expression is involved.

What I can predict is that when the inevitable happens and a student delivers a prayer from an unpopular religion - or gives a message promoting atheism - public enthusiasm for the free-speech model will wane.

In other words, it might not take long for Birdville to decide that Toconic Hills got it right after all.

Charles C. Haynes writes for the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Web:

Who owns the news?

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski

Who owns the news?

The glib answer is “no one.” But of course, the full answer is more complicated than that.

Famously, news is “who, what, when, where and why” — the “five Ws.” That mantra was drilled into the minds of generations of journalists, the essentials around which a news report is constructed.

Once past those basic facts, the complexity of the ownership issue begins.

News operations claim ownership of their reports — individual items as well as the collections that make up newspapers, broadcasts and online sites.

Ownership can relate to a particular account of news, the arrangement of words, the photos, videos or sounds of events — as in television or radio broadcasts of sports games, where a station or network pays a rights fee to “own” the event.

Ownership also might be linked to a particular means of determining the news, as when a court held some years ago that the PGA owns the “news” as reported in its unique method of tracking where every golfer in a tournament stands at any particular moment in the competition.

A system has grown up over centuries, in copyright law, to determine who owns such “news” reports — with evolving legal definitions over time of what can be owned, for how long, and by whom.

Yet another evolution — involving the Internet and the pervasive presence of mobile devices with cameras — may well be spurred by a fan’s cell phone-video of the horrific crash at a preliminary race in this year’s Daytona 500.

The controversy involves video taken by a fan seated near the spot where debris — including a wheel — dropped into spectator seats as cars collided. A fan posted the video on YouTube. But it was taken down for a time after NASCAR brought a copyright claim under a law that effectively requires the site host to take down first and review later. As it happens, YouTube later determined it saw no copyright violation and restored the video to public view.

The incident presents this question: Who owns an account of unexpected “news” (the crash) that occurs during planned “news” (the race).

In an interview with The Washington Post’s media blogger Erik Wemple, NASCAR Vice President of Digital Media Marc Jenkins said “This was never a copyright issue for us. We blocked it out of respect for those injured. What we saw was that it appeared someone was injured by the tire and it was unclear at the time what the status of the fan was.”

Still, news reports say that every NASCAR ticket contains a small-print admonition that it owns any video, audio or data account of its races. And it was on that claim that NASCAR employed the take-down process to accomplish its stated humanitarian goal.

There’s little question of the ownership of scripted, planned events where there are tickets — from Broadway plays to professional wrestling events — where the outcome is set in advance. The claim would seem less solid the closer the issue of ownership moves to the undetermined, unplanned process and outcome of an event — a news account of how a game was played, or a fan’s visual record of the winners or losers in a car race.

And what if there’s a disturbance during a scripted play? Does the playwright or theater “own,” say, a video record of a heckler’s outburst? What if a real fight breaks out during a staged fight at the wrestling “match?” Is that part of the show?

Or is it just news, with the element of serendipity putting not only the “five W’s” but the reports that surround them, in whatever technological form, firmly in the public domain?

A free press unrestrained by government, but hemmed in privately by those who would claim ownership of such unplanned occurrences, clearly is not really free to report all of the news as fully as it might.

At one time, the issue might have stopped with an old observation that the free press “belongs to the man who owns one,” as in a printing press.

But toss in the added element that we’re all now “reporters” and can inexpensively post the news to the entire world with a few keystroke — and suddenly, the real news is that the idea of who owns the news is changing yet again.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

The price of freedom

By Robert Apostol

There are many references to freedom that may inevitably compel us to ponder on the word often. Consider “the land of the free,” because of which many immigrate to this much-coveted country!

Then, more recently, we celebrate Our Lord’s nativity, during which “He came to set us free.

But then Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that while “man is born free, everywhere I see him in chains.” (metaphorical in most cases!)

And John Stuart Mill adamantly speaks of “the tyranny of the majority” whose values may dominate the ideology of a nation.

There is finally the distinction between license (One can do whatever he wants) and the actions that a person ought to do.

Perhaps we can indulge in the background of our ideology, that can be defined as the dominant social thinking by which we partially understand and partially misunderstand ourselves, viz., in talks about the American dream and progress.

Regrettably, freedom and free will are subverted by marketing and so forth. That is why we need to examine the ill-effects of notions of fetishism that people deify.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), a notable Scottish economist, is the author of the classic book, the “Wealth of Nations”. This work discusses the relationship between freedom and order in a society where individuals follow their selfish interests.

The reference to “selfish interests” may be germane to an investigation that seeks to understand the way greed can creep into deliberations that undermine the altruism advocated by family and education

The following quotation comes from the “Wealth of Nations” i.e., “...without intending to promote the public interest, he intends only his own gain, and he is led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention.

We may be prepared to reflect on the American hegemony. Before entering the 21st century, Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that the United States “will be the first, last and only superpower.” Born in Warsaw, he was thoroughly Americanized.

While traveling in Western Europe (Iceland, Spain, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark), encounters with people provided a genuine opportunity to discuss issues ranging from human rights to religious freedom.

They were painfully aware that the United States applied sanctions against countries that do not meet international standards. This became sensitive when we did not appear to meet those standards either in areas like water-boarding and human rights.

As we export democracy and freedom, there is a latin dictum that is germane. It says Namo dat quod non habet, i.e., “No one can give what he does not have.”

This may remind us that free choice must not be equated with license, ie., what looks (apparent) good rather than the real good, the want instead of the ought. We need to foster the breed of people whose mettle gives them the quality of being the iconoclasts that society needs.

There is a concept we need to resurrect Jean-Paul Sartre’s concern about the abdication of freedom. Actually, Sartre does not only maintain that man is free, but that man is freedom!. In his classic phrase that “man is condemned to be free,” he suggests that man “is responsible for everything he does or does not do (act of omission).”

We shall now consider two arguments that characterize the free will., the psychological and the moral. First, we are confronted by two courses of action, then we proceed to deliberate over the reasons, after which we determine a choice. While this may be viewed as a relief, we advance the view that it is the right moral choice.

A fundamental given in the moral argument is the awareness of moral ideals. An adage suggests that “There is nothing more practical than a good idea.” This is supported by Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “I ought, therefore I can.”

We may recall the magnanimous praises given at funeral services. All these judgments imply freedom of the deceased agent who is now being praised. In other words, when I praise your unselfish acts, I imply you could have been cruel or selfish.

Let us consider the constraints, bonds that impose external necessity, the absence of which we call spontaneity. Then there is a person’s moral necessity, that are imposed by moral laws.

It is critical to bring our discussion on freedom to a conclusion with a corollary, viz., the experience of anxiety, without which people cannot claim any experience of freedom. Not too long ago, we learned on a television segment that 23 million Americans have anxiety disorders all year round.

In our Anglo-Saxon tradition, we often view anxiety as synonymous with worry. It has to have an object, such jobs, salary, exams, friends, debt, foreclosure, etc. But there is meaning of anxiety that is yet to be recognized, viz., it is associated with being free! Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, suggests that one must expect to have anxiety with every assertion of freedom.

Consider the hard-ball decisions with which one is confronted. Exploring careers or embarking on a mission, or just thought of giving some meaning to life! In this sense of the term, it is part of the human condition to experience anxiety.

All the agony, conflict and struggle with which we are familiar are the price of being free beings. That is why we need to recapture freedom and value anxiety to be engaged in the exciting task of enjoying the fullness of life.

It is important to examine any constraints in fostering our freedom in the human community. If we recognize our interdependence, we may demonstrate thoughtfulness, effervescence and surely civility, and capture greater excitement in our global village!

Robert Apostol is a former professor at Creighton University.  

Letters to the Editor

Pot cannons inspired
by farcical Drug War

Dear Editor:

First it was submarines, then drug tunnels, bribery and ultra-lights.

Now we have marijuana cannons. Drug prohibition is the mother of invention and the father of laughs.

And if a drug dealer gets caught in a failed supply-side smuggling adventure, he or she can hire a reformed DEA agent or former assistant U.S. attorney to mount a defense. As the Guardian has reported, “US prosecutors and other senior officials who spearheaded the war against drug cartels have quit their jobs to defend Colombian cocaine traffickers, saying their clients are not bad people and that United States drug policy is wrong.”

The former prosecutors and senior drug war officials are at least half right on that score.

And on the demand side, if a drug user becomes addicted to outlawed drugs thus made ever stronger and more available, he or she can turn to an employee assistance program designed by a senior head of the DEA or a recovered drug addict now making a living off the “disease” of drug use.

The drug war is a colossal bad (and deadly) joke played on a trusting public who have tolerated it for over 40 years but who are beginning to awaken.

Worst of all, March 11 through 15 in Vienna, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will sign up the world for another year of the same drug-prohibition nonsense as communities including Gresham, Englewood and Humboldt Park continue to bury their dead, distracted by calls for bigger and better gun control instead of demanding an end to the killer war on drugs: Public Enemy No. 1. Heartbreaking.

James E. Gierach
Palos Park